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Exceptional Human Experiences: Rethinking Anomalies and Shifting Paradigms
Suzanne V. Brown
The Exceptional Human Experience Network has a different approach to anomalous, out-of- the-ordinary Exceptional Experiences (EEs). By taking the emphasis off of proof, or artificially trying to "cause" or stage events in the laboratory, or passively collecting case reports, we are actively trying to understand what these types of experiences and the experiencers are telling us as a whole. Inspection of the data indicates that there is a distinctive, recognizable pattern or clustering of inner and outer events: triggers, concomitants, and aftereffects which are similar across experiencer reports from over 100 different types of EEs. Preliminary study shows that those individuals who begin to explore their EEs and question conventional answers may undergo a series of similar developmental, predictable, humanizing, and transformative stages of expanding conscious awareness, which we call the Exceptional Human Experience Process (EHE Process). When EEers begin to comprehend and realize that their experiences are more than external phenomena happening "outside" of them and instead signify a whole inner and outer personally meaningful experience, the EE becomes potentiated into an EHE. EHEers report greater numbers of EHEs including meaningful insights, heightened creativity, and "lucky coincidences." Over time, or additional EEs/EHEs, or with a tremendous burst of insight, a subjective threshold is crossed the experiencer’s lifeview and whole worldview changes, and a new perspective (i.e., double vision) is forged. Fresh transpersonal connections with a new vision of self and the world become established. In hindsight, advanced EHEers report that the whole process was life changing and felt somehow "destined." It is at this stage of the EHE Process where the EHEer has literally transcended everyday "normal reality" and discovered with clarity and quiet wisdom his or her unique "calling" in life, and the calling to an evolution of consciousness for all life.
More and more people from all walks of life in the Americas and Europe are reporting experiences of anomalous events for which there are few, if any, acceptable rational explanations within current Western culture. According to recent public polls and surveys (see, for example, "CBS poll," 1990; Haraldsson & Houtkooper, 1991; Henry, 1993; Kennedy & Kanthamani, 1995; Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, 1994) between 25% to 85% of the respondents have acknowledged paranormal and/or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary Exceptional Experiences (EEs) which do not conform to the mainstream worldview paradigm. Depending on the study, these experiences ranged from meaningful coincidences, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, spontaneous healing, miracle claims, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, haunting apparitions, to encounters with alien visitors, religious figures, and full-blown mystical experiences. From a statistical model, these sampling percentages are quite impressive and illustrate that within our culture these types of experiences can no longer be tagged "anomalous." The fact that more people than ever before (i.e., conservative estimates based on these data figure tens of millions of adults in the United States alone) are reporting exceptional experiences illustrates a huge disparity in our culture. Rather than acknowledge that these exceptional experiences may be part of the overall human experience, they are largely dismissed and the experiencer is typically sensationalized, feared, ridiculed, or "rationalized’ back into the status quo framework.
Some modest attempts have been made to understand the environmental, physical, and other external factors that may contribute to the cause of these phenomena, but little progress has been made with that approach. Stable, healthy, and sincere people continue to have these types of experiences for which they in greater numbers than ever before are demanding personally meaningful information, rather than scientific "proofs," theoretical conjectures, or prescribed dogmas. It is important to note that while these reports are overall statistically more widespread, these events are still relatively rare when compared to an individual’s steady state or baseline of daily experiences. Yet, over the course of a lifetime, even one such exceptional experience has the potential power to change a person deeply and profoundly. Our work at the Exceptional Human Experience Network (EHEN) shows that these anomalous experiences have the potential to transform the experiencer and all of our society in creative, healthy, and auspicious ways.
From the individual’s viewpoint, these paranormal, mystical, and other exceptional experiences present themselves from outside of the stream of everyday events and can lead to intense questioning of self, belief-structures, sanity, scientific and religious training, and overall worldview. Rhea A. White, Founder and Director of the Exceptional Human Experience Network (EHEN) has listed over 100 qualitatively different types of EEs (White, 1997d; see pp. 41-43, this section). These include the psychic, mystical, encounter, and death-related "anomalies," as well as those experiences that are more commonly found at the edges of everyday human perception, emotion, and ability, such as déjà vu, feelings of nostalgia, and "personal bests" of athletic zoning. All EEs surprise us. They often seem to come from out of the blue, such as a spontaneous flash of remote vision, a premonition, creative burst of activity, serendipitous discovery, or an "accident." What we have learned is that the common denominator across all of these types of experiences rests in their potential to transform or serve the individual in a way that would not have been realized if the event had never occurred.
For those people who choose to acknowledge, question and potentiate their EEs, there eventually comes a point of significant insight: The external event becomes internalized and serves as a catalytic flash point for the creation of a new way of visualizing self and the world. And, it is at this point where and when the EE is transformed or transmuted into the Exceptional Human Experience (EHE); and the EEer into an Exceptional Human Experiencer (EHEer) (see White, 1997a, White, 1997b).
There is a rich, anecdotal history for this personal EE- to- EHE transformative process, often marking the turning points in history, scientific discovery, invention, and new forms of arts and literature. Popular examples range from Archimedes’ Eureka! of discovery to measure the volume of water, Bohr’s dream of electrons as mini solar systems, Kekule’s dream of a snake uroboros to model the molecular structure of benzene, Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin, and Elias Howe’s dream to perfect the sewing machine needle design which led to textile mass production. If honored, these types of transformative insights can be life changing for the individual and have far-reaching value for society. Yet, surprisingly, very little is known about this process especially when it is triggered by an exceptional experience.
From a scientific viewpoint, EEs continue to be classified as anomalies or aberrations because they do not fit within the prevailing worldview or mechanistic paradigm. Assigning them to the nether regions or discounting them as "errors" in scientific inquiry does little to help us understand them. Even with some of the more adventuresome researchers, EEs are forced to fit a sort of Procrustean bed of established scientific structure, where they are stretched or "lopped off" to fit the reigning framework, rather than signal or cue for a restructuring of the status quo. Yet, Thomas Kuhn (1962) reminds us that there eventually does come a point in science where the prevailing paradigm (and its proponents) is forced to shift overall perspective and worldview in order to include the increasing number of data that fly in the face of the status quo. (See Rosen, 1994, for illuminating discussions across a wide field of scientific paradoxes and the growing call from many corners of the sciences, arts, and humanities to shift to a more transcultural approach of study.)
Similar to these macroscopic paradigm shifts of scientific and philosophic worldview, EEs also signal a type of individualized, inner paradigm shift. Such shifts of perspective can forever refocus and redirect a person’s actions, aesthetics, contributions, and zest for life. In many cases, especially when the EE is intense or profound, the experiencer begins to mark his or her lifetime chronology with a "before" and "after" of events relative to that single, originating exceptional experience. To the acute listener, clues are peppered in everyday conversation, such as before-after the "Accident," the "Competition," the "Dream." An EE event, coupled with corresponding insight and personal meaningfulness, becomes an EHE and henceforth is forever etched as a reminder of a major shift of perspective and in hindsight a seemingly fated redirection of life.
Simply said, life is no longer the same for the exceptional human experiencer. The potentiated anomalous experience has left its indelible mark and changed the experiencer’s perspective on life. One major aftereffect that we have noted with this personal paradigm shift is that the experiencer adopts a type of "double vision" that accommodates both the existing worldview of traditional thought and a fresh, new worldview. We can best describe this resultant synthesis with a Venn Diagram, where the "before" circle of knowledge or perspective is nested within a larger circumference "after" concentric circle. As a result, the EHEer has forever changed perspective and gained an uncommon ability to move within either or both worldviews (circles) as the need arises. This is in stark contrast to those where the old language is stuck in keeping things the way they are, and the new is bewildering, even raving to those of the old language. Yet, the EHEer has gained a new found ability to communicate and translate across worldviews; grounding a concept in the common "language" while envisioning new products, designs, creative works, fresh insights that are tapped from the new perspective. Scientific philosopher Steven Rosen (1994) describes this as the both/and view of a new reality, reminiscent of the Gestaltist law that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. With EHEs, the before and after, and the old and new, merge into more than the sum of what they could be separately. And, for the EHEer, once these insights have been integrated and consolidated to form a new foundation of life experience, the resultant whole is a calm knowing, a fluidity and versatility. It is the best of both worlds and something extra what is commonly called "wisdom" in Western society.
People from all walks of life throughout the ages have reported extraordinary experiences with ESP, mind-over-matter, mystical visions, miracles, otherworldly encounters, and seemingly superhuman feats of perception and ability. These experiences have caused all of us to stop and wonder if these reported phenomena are authentic, that is, can they be proven and externally validated? By their very nature, these anomalies do not fit comfortably and most efforts to study these phenomena have either been directed toward stretching the physical "laws" of physics, where theories of time, space, and linear causality may be in question, or demanding independent verification of experiencers’ (often spontaneous) personal accounts. Still it seems that after 100 years of research centering on paranormal phenomena and the EE events themselves, we are no closer to "answers."
The field of parapsychology began in the 1890s to formally study psychic and other claims of the paranormal, including investigations into professed medium contact with the spirit world. As well as locating some particularly inexplicable phenomena and seemingly "gifted" individuals, several claims could also be attributed to fraud or notoriety-seeking individuals. During the early and mid-20th century, some promising bright spots appeared with the works of biologists J.B. and L.E. Rhine, and psychologist Gardner Murphy. In 1969 the Parapsychological Association (PA) was formally admitted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the endorsement of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In its heyday from 1940-1980, parapsychology research largely turned around laboratory experimentation and adopted the reigning psychology objective-behaviorist framework (i.e., laboratory controlled variables marking cause-effect; mind as unknowable "black box"). Research along these lines yielded some minimal effects, but more often than not, these proof-centered, psi-on-demand laboratory results were largely dismissed by traditional scientists.
Parapsychology’s reaction to this rebuff has been to largely ignore its roots in human psychology with its study of mind, cognition, and consciousness in favor of garnering recognition from the so-called "hard sciences," especially physics, where various theories and models of physical (non-mind) "reality" are tested and embraced. Although a few parapsychologists are beginning to look at the possibilities of a more holistic consciousness-physical universe in their theory development, most research methodologies remain centered around laboratory proofs. As a result, many of today’s parapsychologists would be more aptly named paraphysicists. In their push to gain mainstream scientists’ approval, parapsychologists have virtually ignored the study of the spontaneous and provocative nature of paranormal experiences, and the study of the human experiencers themselves.
In the meantime, Rhea White (1990, 1993, 1994,) has called for a fresh orientation toward all anomalous and remarkable experiences, not just the psychic ones. Her approach, and that of the EHEN, is unique in that we base our work on the inherent value of these experiences to potentially transform the individual. This singular shift of focus from demanding proof to valuing these experiences and experiencers has already begun to provide a wealth of rewarding information that reaches into all aspects of human endeavor. We follow an inductive and well as a deductive approach to our study that includes a wide range of exceptional experience. Over 100 different types of EEs (potential EHEs) have been identified so far and grouped into five classes according to core similarities (White & Brown, 1997). If a particular experience is sufficiently unique, strange, anomalous, and even preposterous when compared to the experiencer’s baseline of everyday experience (i.e., crosses a threshold) and it elicits feelings of discrepancy or incongruity (i.e., promotes cognitive dissonance) such that it has the potential to engender a profound shift of perspective (i.e., shift from baseline conscious awareness), then the experience is defined as an EE and a potential EHE.
Slowly but surely individual and social perspectives are beginning to change. Over the past several years there has been an increasing demand for credible information about anomalous experiences and the people who have them. The explosion of the information age has made it possible to share and learn more about these types of experiences through all forms of media, including the World Wide Web. More and more people are finding out that they are not alone in their experiences and that others are having a wide variety of unusual and "inexplicable" events in their lives. Although this is reassuring, the media continue to typically approach experiencers as bizarre, sensational, or gifted, or to pit them against scientific "experts" demanding proof. In one respect, the media have gone a long way in publicizing these phenomena, but overall, they continue to follow our prevailing cultural mind-set that highlights anomaly, exclusion, separation, and rationalization.
Fortunately, many of today’s experiencers take a more educated, discerning, and open-minded stance toward their experiences. They are not as likely to be easily placated with theory, scientific tests, or prescribed ideologies of any kind (see Felser, 1995). Beyond requiring convenient labels, experiencers are searching for meaning and personal meaningfulness of their experiences. The EEer begins to understand that he or she has choices: To revert back to the old reality way of seeing the world and depotentiate the experience as an aberration, or to potentiate the experience by integrating whatever was learned, revealed or discovered into a larger pattern or lifeview. Exceptional experiences are counter to the individual’s comfortable sense of "reality;" it creates an uncomfortable, lingering question to be answered. Yet, when the experience is denied altogether, the EEer will make great efforts to push the experience away into the background, relegating it to those things of life which are better off "forgotten." As such, the EE may lie dormant for years or for even a lifetime. style="mso-spacerun: yes" (At this point, I wonder whether our Western medical system might better serve clients by helping them address their EEs rather than automatically treating the superficial symptoms which may be in actuality common aftereffects of depotentiation, such as chronic un-ease, general malaise, lethargy, anxiety, frequent colds, and the like.)
However, when individuals choose to potentiate their EEs that is, try to understand them in a way which is personally meaningful, they begin to actively search a variety of resources for answers, including nontraditional or alternative ones. This intense search for answers may seem to the outsider like the EEer is on a personal quest reminiscent of the Grail mythologies. At first, the individual begins to search for some form of authoritative validation and external confirmation of the EE (i.e., "meaning" of the anomalous event itself). Often this leads to a unwieldy underground of mystics, psychics, gurus, dogmas, scientific "truths," and their practitioners. Calls to parapsychologists and other scientists are unsatisfying with demands of proof or offers of research papers filled with cryptic jargon. Mainstream psychiatrists want to medicate, religionists want to recruit, and family and friends just want the EEer back the way he or she was before "the incident." After a frustrating search for authoritative answers, the EEer is left on the horns of a dilemma. Should the envelope be pushed further and the search continued or is it better to just forget the whole matter and regress back into the safe, normative, and culturally accepted cocoon?
Typically, as experiencers begin to acknowledge and investigate, and later to actualize and incorporate their experiences. Close friends and family members may observe a series of behavioral, personality, and psychological changes in their loved ones. Further, these observations seem to parallel a series of subjective or inner changes reported to us by experiencers. This parallel pattern of outer and inner critical decision junctures, including graduated levels of meaningfulness and developmental stages, indicate to us a unique human transformative process that we call the EHE Process (see Brown, 1997, and White, 1997b, for descriptions of both objective and subjective viewpoints of this five-stage process). From a research and applications standpoint, this EHE Process marks a predictable series of behaviors and attitudes, feelings and insights which may be recognized, classified, observed, analyzed, and applied to the study of these experiences and to the aid of experiencers.
One major preliminary finding we have noted is the similarity between the creative process and the EHE Process (Brown, 1996). Creative problem-solving models serve well in this case, and I have noted several similarities between the early stages of the EHE Process and the Tip-of-the-Tongue (TOT) phenomenon. To illustrate briefly: Most people have had the frustration of trying to come up with an answer to a question or searching for a word in memory. The word is on the tip-of-the-tongue; the answer is "in there" just not readily accessible at that moment on demand. Similar to TOTs, EEs also present a type of question to answer or problem to solve, although the EE to EHE incubation period between the initiating question and insight may last for years. In both cases, overt attempts to force or demand answers (or to prove, repeat the initial EE, or elicit additional EEs) are usually ineffective. At this stage, the individual may become quite frustrated, angry, and/or depressed at his or her inability to evoke the answer by sheer willpower alone. Rather, the answer is often found spontaneously during quiet times, such as during hypnagogic/hypnopompic or REM sleep or when doing a routine task like driving or showering. It is at this Eureka! stage that the individual reports great feelings of elation, excitement and a profound sense of relief. The "answer" resonates a feeling of "correctness" that is inherently satisfying (meaningful) for the individual. By analogy, so too does "finding" the personally meaningful "answer" to questions about an EE engender a similar profound sense of relief and release. That catalytic flash of insight literally shifts, moves, and propels the experiencer into a whole new perspective of personal and life meaning and discovery, often after many years of relative quiescence and dormancy.
Thus, in the early stages of the EHE process we see several parallels to the creative problem solving process: problem presentation; active search; increasing frustration; background incubation; spontaneous insight; and relief and release. Sooner or later EHEers also report that these stages become second nature and continue forward in their transformative process. Based on these more longitudinal reports, White (1997b, 1997e) suggests that the EHE Process is similar to the overall creative process because we ourselves are evolving and undergoing the process of Self-creation. From this perspective, every single insight gained has the potential to engender additional insights. Further, from our preliminary research we see that these stages do not signify a simple linear progression, rather they are reiterative, both transcendental and inscendental, expansions of conscious awareness. Predictably, as experiencers become more familiar with and willing to explore their EEs, focus turns away from the EE event itself and towards the rewards gained from increasing insight such as the EHE aftereffects of double vision, self-discovery, and a greater sense of universal connection and life purpose. Later, after much reflective introspection and calm hindsight EHEers report that these experiences felt purposive, even fated pivotal events in their overall stream of life.
To study exceptional human experience takes new vision. The patterns and process we are observing indicate a significant shift personal and social awareness. To date, mainstream psychology models of cognition and learning do little to help us understand the transitional processes involved. Most scientific approaches still hold to evidential-proof methodologies and by their nature these types of spontaneous experiences cannot captured, staged, or easily replicated in the lab. On the other hand, human development models are still based largely on psychosocial maturation, adjustment and chronological, linear stages. Further, while humanistic psychology and its practitioners may attend to the wide range of personal issues confronting those who have been victims of natural disasters, trauma and other types of potentially pivotal life crises, they virtually ignore the "exceptional" life-changing experiences in our lives. Indeed, even when experiencers muster up the courage to share a precognitive warning, discuss an OBE, detail an apparition encounter with a recently deceased family member, or try to articulate a cosmic peak experience we are more apt to look upon the EEers themselves rather than the EE as peculiar. The emerging field of transpersonal psychology is beginning to allow for the exceptional and the growth of healthy transcendental awareness. However, it too falls short. Many of these efforts are still centered in labeling triggers, defining discrete stages and/or identifying cause-effect relation-ships. Most often, potential EHEs are reduced to epiphenomena or offshoots of trauma, undifferentiated "stress," and/or great efforts are made to assimilate the potential EHEer quickly back into mainstream. (See Reed, 1997, for an insightful discussion regarding our need for an overarching/integrated transpersonal psychology that honors all types of human experience.)
Because EEs/EHEs are largely spontaneous events, they are best measured by their aftereffects. As long as our society continues to label EEs as "anomalies" and discount them, the tremendous potential to humanize them and expand personal, cultural and even mass consciousness lies dormant. Yet, it is that very strangeness and the provocative nature inherent within EEs that has the potential to wake us out of our comfortable slumber, prompting us ask different questions. And in our inquiry, we become initiated into the EHE Process. When our inquiry is intense and peppered with additional EHEs and insights or we are "thrown" by a particularly powerful EHE, we begin to envision our own roles and responsibilities as co-creators of a larger reality where we are intimately intertwined and interwoven into the matrix of all Life. The EHE Network’s studies of hundreds of narrative aftereffects continue to reveal this vision, a vision that shares this timeless knowledge about our archetypal Journey of Life. By living and working from within the Experiential Paradigm we reconstruct a "new" reality and hope for greater understanding of ourselves and our world. Exceptional human experiencers are showing and reminding us of this, our forgotten path and lost world. Our responsibilities as researchers, counselors, educators, and human beings require no less of us than to wake up and pay attention to this timeless story of challenge, discovery, revelation, and human evolution.
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